„Sometimes I feel like a bike is basically a magic wand – it can make language barriers, fear of contact and cultural differences disappear.“
Last year, Qloom ambassador Gerhard Czerner, together with Jakob Breitwieser and photographer Martin Bissig, took on one of the most impressive and dangerous mountains in the world - K2 in Pakistan. Gerhard spoke with Qloom about the exciting yet strenuous journey, the hospitality of the Pakistanis and the unforgettable forces of nature.
How do you decide on your travel destinations and why did you choose Pakistan?
Fortunately, I have the privilege to fulfill many of my travel dreams. I have already travelled to many mountains of the world: The Alps, the Andes, the Tien Shan, the Caucasus, the Himalayas, I have also been to the base camp of Mount Everest with my bike. Pakistan with the Karakorum was on my wish list since I was a teenager. I really wanted to go to the "Throne Room of the Mountain Gods" as the Concordia Square is also called, at the foot of K2. I am very grateful that I was able to make this dream come true.
How did you prepare for this journey?
It was obvious that we would need to carry and push our bikes a lot, especially uphill. Therefore, I did many long mountain tours beforehand as well as alpine tours, where I had to carry my bike on my shoulders for a long time. The mental preparation is also vitally important, you need to be prepared for everything. But to be completely honest: Even with all the preparation of the world, we wouldn’t have been prepared for this adventure.
You were on the road with Jakob Breitwieser and Martin Bissig. How many additional guides were on this trip?
There was another guide, Isaak. Over 60 years old, extremely fit and funny. Furthermore, we had the support of four porters until we reached the Concordia site. At the site three Pakistanis with two donkeys were waiting for us. Without the support of our helpful team we would never have made it to Askole. Food and fuel for 16 days, tents, sleeping bags, clothing for temperature differences from -20 degrees at night to +25 degrees during the day, the climbing equipment for the pass – all of this we could never have transported alone.
How do you orientate yourselves during the tour?
That was easy: up along the glacier. Over the "lowest point" at 5600m and then to the other side where you start to descend along the glacier. If we had wanted to get lost, we would have had to cross a mountain which is 6-, 7- or 8000 meters high. And we had Isaak with us who knows every rock.
Were there any situations where it became dangerous?
The most dangerous thing in Pakistan was certainly driving a car. In the Braldu gorge the road is carved into the rocks hundreds of meters above the river. You need to fold in the mirrors on the left, on your right it goes down steep. Nothing can get in the way. Every now and then a jeep crashes here too.
A short time later we found out that the brakes of our jeep had failed. The driver continued only with the hand and engine brake. During the lunch break they filled the brake system with milk because brake fluid is scarce! To be completely honest: We didn’t feel that safe but it all worked out in the end. Well at least until we ran out of fuel 15 minutes later on the track…
During the ascent to Gondogoro La you had a bit of a struggle, how do you push yourself mentally to keep going?
It was my decision to go to Gondogoro La, so I simply had to get through it. It’s helpful to divide the climb into small stages, concentrate on your breathing and just keep going. I know from experience that we are capable of much more than our mind thinks. In these kind of situations, you have to get out of your comfort zone and put aside the negative thoughts.
You have covered some altitude. What does that do to the body, did you ever think about giving up?
Give up? No. Wouldn't have done any good. We'd have died on a glacier in Pakistan. That's what's so exciting about being exposed like this. You are responsible for the decisions you make and you have to bear the consequences and help yourself. There is no mountain rescue, no one to get you out of the situation. You can't press the escape key and be out like in a computer game. As Isaak used to say: „This is no city. This is mountain adventure!"
Did you have to pay special attention to your diet at this altitude?
Nutrition was a special topic. Breakfast and dinner were always tasty and rich. When we were traveling we had a packed lunch consisting of the following: a potato, a chapati (a small flat bread), a piece of cheese, some raisins and nuts. With this we often had to manage ten hours and more. Also on our longest day which led over the Gondogoro La and we were on the „road“ for 21 hours, we only ate this "rich" package. In addition, we got a cup of noodle soup at a camp. Some days we were travelling really hungry.
In the video you often mention hospitality. Do you think differently about Pakistan now?
Absolutely. Whether we have been to a country or not, through the media we have some image portrayed in our minds of most countries. Our image already changed in the first afternoon. Never before have so many people thanked me for travelling to their country. We had encountered honest friendliness without wanting to sell us anything. We always felt safe and welcomed.
What fascinated you most about the country?
Besides the warm welcome, the untamed nature. The mighty mountains which rise vertically into the sky like skyscrapers. Shaped like a child draws mountains: tapering to the top. These granite giants are really impressive.
What are you taking away from this trip specifically?
There's a lot. The changed image of the country and its people as well as the fascinating natural forces. The fact that we are afraid of things when we think about them but once we’re experiencing it, it is usually not so bad. If someone had told me beforehand that I would be on the road for 21 hours in a row, overcoming an almost vertical, icy wall with my bike on my back... Honestly, I don't think I would have flown there out of respect. But it was possible. Also the good atmosphere in the team was very special. Despite the struggles, each one of us had reached their limits at one point, we were always respectful to each other and laughed a lot. In such undertakings one should not take oneself too seriously.
What features did you particularly appreciate about Qloom clothing during the tour?
The Merino Midlayers are perfect for such ventures. The outer material of the trousers is extremely durable which never ceases to amaze me. I am very grateful for the stylish, functional clothing so that I that I don't have to worry about it on the way. I can just put it on and I’m good to go.
You had to carry the bike a lot. Would you still take the bike with you?
Uh, I don't think so. But I'm really glad we had it with us. The encounters were different. The Pakistanis met us enthusiastically throughout, precisely because we had the bicycles with us. The shining children's eyes when we were in the villages and they were allowed to ride on our bikes. We would not have experienced all this if we had been travelling by foot. Sometimes I feel like a bike is basically a magic wand – it can make language barriers, fear of contact and cultural differences disappear.
Did you draw any conclusions and to what will you pay more attention to when planning your next trip?
We were happy with the planning throughout. It turned out just as we had imagined. A certain flexibility on site is always needed. Maybe in the future I will put some energy bars in my backpack for on the road.
Photos: Martin Bissig